Atwood's 'MaddAddam' trilogy a cautionary tale told with humour
Author Margaret Atwood is pictured in a Toronto hotel room on Tuesday March 6, 2012, as she promotes the documentary film 'Payback' based on her book. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.
Published Friday, August 23, 2013 3:14PM EDT
TORONTO -- "Could you put your foot up on the table, Margaret?" the photographer asks somewhat cheekily, and the doyenne of Canadian fiction complies, an impish grin on her face.
It is the playful side of Margaret Atwood, and it's an aspect of the author's personality that peppers the pages of her latest novel "MaddAddam," the final book in her dystopic trilogy that began with 2003's "Oryx and Crake" and completes the storyline that followed six years later in "The Year of the Flood."
That's not to say that the theme of the trio of novels is anything but serious, despite Atwood's wry sense of humour acting on readers like sprinklings of sugar that make her apocalyptic message immensely more palatable.
This is, after all, a three-part story about the human race being taken to the brink of extinction, much like the world's tigers or the whooping crane, through humanity's greedy overuse of global resources and its failure to pay heed to the signs of the planet's impending ecological collapse.
Throw in some ethically questionable scientific tinkering -- cross-species genetic splicing to create nature-defying animals, including a lab-designed better-than-the original humanoid race -- and the face of the globe seems inalterably remade.
But not quite.
"Oryx and Crake" is narrated by Snowman (a.k.a. Jimmy), who believes he may be the only human left alive after his best friend Crake unleashes a plague-in-a-pill -- a "waterless flood" -- aimed at sweeping away homo sapiens to make way for a bio-engineered race that will live in harmony with the planet. Starving and bereft at the deaths of Crake and Oryx (the woman they both loved), Snowman becomes a kind of prophet to the green-eyed Children of Crake, as he looks back at how the world became a place of such desolation.
"The Year of the Flood" is a parallel story, told by Toby and Ren, about the erosion of civilized society, where the elite live and work in tightly controlled corporate compounds while everyone else scratches out existence in the violence-ridden pleeblands. The women had been part of God's Gardeners, a spiritual group devoted to preserving the Earth's remaining plants and animals. Their leader, the shadowy Adam One, has predicted a natural disaster will alter the world irrevocably, and he oversees the sect's efforts to encourage fellow citizens to mend their ruinous ways.
In "MaddAddam," Atwood ties the two tales together, moving the story forward through Toby and Zeb, Adam One's renegade brother, who broke with the Gardeners to take on the Corps through acts of bioterrorism. The novel picks up the thread of the story post-pandemic, following a group of survivors as they try to rebuild their lives after the "flood."
Taken together, "MaddAddam" and its forerunners are a kind of clarion call by the avowed environmentalist, whose more than 40 works of fiction, poetry and essays include the Booker prize-winning "The Blind Assassin" and the dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale."
"We can't go on forever on the path that we're on," Atwood asserts during a recent interview. "And a lot of people know that, because No. 1, the planet is finite. No 2, kill the ocean and that's the end of us because it makes 60 to 80 per cent of the oxygen we breathe.
"So people are devoting a lot of thought to these things. But I don't notice a lot of political will about it yet, because politicians think what's uppermost on everybody's mind is 'Do I have a job?' And they're right about that, people vote their jobs.
"People also vote their health. So when it gets a bit too dire and too many Walkertons come down the tube, then people will realize that it actually doesn't matter how much money you have if you're dead."
Walkerton is the Ontario town where the water became tainted with E. coli in 2000, causing seven deaths.
The Harper government, Atwood says, has grudgingly admitted the environment needs protection, yet at the same time is pushing for the Keystone and other pipelines, despite the risk of oil spills fouling sensitive terrain and higher greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands extraction process.
The author wants to know how much taxpayer money is supporting such projects, what taxpayers will get out it, and who will monitor any fallout to people's health.
"What you really don't want is corporations out of control, making a huge mess that the taxpayer will then have to clean up, usually being unable to afford it.
"At the core of my books is uncontrolled corporate power. And when you have that you no longer have a democracy," she argues, echoing one of the central themes of "MaddAddam" and its companion novels.
Still, despite the ominous warnings in her trilogy, the acclaimed novelist is far from writing off the human race altogether.
"Well, I did leave some people standing," laughs Atwood, conceding that she is an optimist at heart, like most writers.
"No. 1, they think they're going to finish their book. No. 2, they think somebody's going to publish it. No. 3, they think somebody's going to read it. No. 4, they think somebody's going to understand it. No. 5, they think that's a worthwhile enterprise.
"So they're inherently optimistic about human communication or they wouldn't do writing."
And when it comes to her writing, beyond classifying the literary troika as "speculative fiction," Atwood eschews any attempt to pigeonhole her work as belonging to a particular genre. Her response to being asked what she calls herself is unequivocal:
"I don't call myself anything. I usually call myself a writer. And all of those membranes between genres are very leaky. Things wash back and forth, they always have. The genre system that has been put in place today is essentially for the convenience of bookstores -- 'What shelf do we put it on?'
"And for me, the distinction is not between this genre or that genre. It's between good, important books and other books. ... I've never been and will never be a person who thinks that one kind of book is by its nature superior to other kinds of books. It doesn't work that way."
At 73, Atwood is as prolific as ever, involved in some television projects she says she can't yet discuss; working on her next collection of short stories -- described as "more outre" than her previous works -- which she hopes to have completed by January; and carrying on with the "Positron" series on Byliner, an online serial instalment project that she plans to turn into a full-fledged novel.
Her "Handmaid's Tale" is being mounted as a ballet, and Atwood will attend its debut performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in October.
She will also be in Vancouver that month workshopping her first opera (with musical composer Tobin Stokes), about the life of Canadian poet and performer Pauline Johnson, a woman whose colourful and somewhat tragic life story is "made for opera," says Atwood. "Pauline," some 15 years in the making, will be premiered by the City Opera in May.
So, all in all, she continues to keep busy?
"What is this continue? Are we using the O-L-D word? Oh, you're amazing for your age. Are we going do that?" Atwood counters, mock-serious.
"Oh, you're still continuing on, dear, isn't that wonderful," she says, breaking into a high-pitched, cartoon-like voice, channelling some imagined commentator. "You're so feisty."
In her so-called spare time, Atwood describes herself as a gardener, canoeist, walker and an intermittent knitter (the no-needles rule on planes has curbed that hobby, she confides). She and long-time partner, writer Graeme Gibson, are avid birders and staunch environmentalists.
Many bird and animal species, forests, oceans, lakes and rivers, and of course the Earth's atmosphere are in peril, she says. "Name it, it's under threat."
So is that the message she wants to impart in "MaddAddam" and its companion novels?
"What is my message? If I had a message that was that short, I would rent a billboard -- 'Eat more prunes,"' she chuckles. "It doesn't reduce to that. So people are always trying to extract one single message out of books because we were taught that way in high school.
"The message of a book is the experience of reading the book," Atwood says.
"So I think my message to people who are scared of possibly negative futures is -- it's a book. It's still only a book. And it hasn't got out of the book, yet."